Aerial efforts aim to restore burned turtle habitat in Washington County – St George News

THE CITY OF WASHINGTONLooking north towards the black rock hills and red cliffs just above the Green Springs Subdivision, keen observers may have seen a small plane hovering low over the desert landscape over the past two days. .

A pilot hired by the Watershed Restoration Initiative flew more than 20 round trips from the treatment area to Hurricane Airport to refuel and load more seed into the distributor, Washington County, Utah, January 26, 2022 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Like a homeowner mowing a lawn, the plane flew back and forth with minor adjustments at each turn to adjust its path – in the case of this project, less than 100 feet separated each pass.

Only close inspection would reveal why pilot and plane were flying so low and in such a controlled pattern: a thin layer of golden seeds trailed behind the plane and settled in the unusually open terrain below them.

Organized as part of the Watershed Restoration Initiative, the aerial reseeding was part of an effort to restore more than 1,600 acres of land in the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve to healthy condition as part of its continued recovery from the Turkey Farm Road fire in 2020.

Curtis Roundy, a habitat restoration biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, supervised the seed application at ground level. He said every part of the project, from the seed mix to the delivery method to the timing, was planned in advance to maximize the benefits for native wildlife.

“The desert tortoise is the big species, but we also have quail, mule deer and other wildlife that call this place home,” Roundy said. “The overall goal is to rehabilitate the area so the plant community is resilient and we don’t have any cheater weeds coming back and then a fire to burn it all up again.”

Mojave Desert Tortoises are particularly at risk from fast fire cheaters like the Turkey Farm Road Fire, Washington County, Utah, November 3, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the Watershed Restoration Initiative, St. George News

Invasive species like cheat grass crowd out native plants while giving little back to the land or wildlife that would otherwise eat native species. They are also increasing the intensity and frequency of wildfires, especially in the ongoing drought that Utah and the West are experiencing.

“When this type of ecosystem in the Mojave Desert burns, the things that regrow are often invasive species like cheat grass, tumbleweeds and various species of mustard,” said Lura Snow, outreach coordinator for the reserve. of the Red Cliffs Desert. “Replanting native seeds is trying to get ahead of the arrival of invasive species, and it will benefit turtles because they are better able to metabolize native species than those invasive species.”

Opting for aerial delivery over ground seeding is a matter of minimizing disturbance while maximizing coverage, Roundy said. The division contracted a local pilot to fly the single-engine aircraft to and from Hurricane Airport, stopping occasionally to refuel and reload the seed dispenser.

The plane used for this project normally has the capacity to carry up to 1,200 pounds of seed in its hopper, but the unique qualities of the chosen mix meant the mix was much less dense. As a result, the pilot could only carry about 500 pounds of mix at a time, meaning he flew more than 20 round trips between the seeding area and the airport.

Approximately 11,000 pounds of seed were scattered over 1,603 acres at the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve, Washington County, Utah, January 26, 2022 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

As the executing agency for the project, the Utah Division of Wildlife formulated, commissioned, and organized the application of the unique seed mix used in the project. The national wildlife agency purchased 11,000 pounds of seed at a total cost of around $220,000.

The mix consists of five species of herbs and herbaceous plants: grama, galleta, sandseed, desert globemallow and forage kochia. While some of the plants occur naturally in the reserve – such as globemallow and grama sideoats – the restoration effort has also used non-native species such as kochia.

“Gathering the seed mix for this desert community has been more challenging than we initially thought,” Roundy said. “The native species that were here before are what we’re trying to bring back here, as well as the introduced species that will outcompete the invasive species. It’s a healthy balance that won’t harm native species, will be good for getting established, and will provide good forage for wildlife.

The project area had already been treated with herbicide immediately after the Turkey Farm Road fire, which ignited approximately 12,000 acres of land. Along with the Cottonwood Trail Fire which burned in another part of the reservation, the 2020 wildfires are believed to have directly caused the deaths of at least 14 turtles found during surveys of the burn areas.

Reseeding was timed to coincide with the actual expiration of the herbicide and in anticipation of the much needed spring storms. Ultimately, the decision to reseed part of the burned area at this time comes down to making the most of limited resources, Roundy said.

Curtis Roundy, habitat restoration biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, shows a plot of land experiencing limited recovery that will be supplemented by reseeding, Washington County, Utah, January 26, 2022 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

After years of intense fires – which are becoming increasingly common – multiple states and even agencies within each state have to compete for a limited supply of seed for their fire-damaged acreage. Several factors are assessed for each fire, and special consideration is given to areas with wildlife needs.

The best thing members of the public can do is prevent wildfires in the first place, Snow said.

“All the fires we’ve had in the past few years have been specifically man-made from fireworks and abandoned campfires,” she said. “The Cottonwood fire started because someone blew a tire on the freeway and then the sparks ignited, so one was not reckless, but the others were absolutely caused by negligent activities on the part of people.”

Walking through the parts of the reserve that burned the most intensely, the effects of the fire are still clearly visible where charred stalks of creosote and cacti protrude from the ground. The char on the ground has faded, but the reappearing green and growing plants are still small.

Highlighting nearby housing estates and the townscape beneath the reserve, Roundy said efforts to rehabilitate the land following the fire mean people who don’t even visit the reserve will benefit – on the one hand , the threat of another severe burn will be reduced and potential flooding events can be totally avoided.

“We try to restore these areas to the best of their ability for wildlife and the public,” Roundy said. “Our goal is to make this region the best it can be for all interested parties: people who hike here, mountain bike here, walk their dogs here, who live near here and who come to this reserve specifically to see and interact with the desert tortoise – we tried to do our best for all of these things.

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